Syria’s Rebels Turn on One Another, and That’s Not a Bad Thing

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Molhem Barakat / Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters call out to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad, urging them to defect, as another fighter stands guard in the old city of Aleppo on Sept. 1, 2013

Ongoing clashes between rival groups within the armed opposition intensified in Syria’s Aleppo province this past week following protests against the heavy-handed tactics of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Infighting among rebels could spell trouble for an opposition movement seemingly on the wane, but it could also present an opportunity. If the moderate-leaning rebel groups can sever their symbiotic relationship with their al-Qaeda affiliates for good, they stand to get significantly more support from Western backers wary of inadvertently assisting old enemies. But it won’t be easy — even as the rivals battle for turf in Aleppo province, they have united to inflict a resounding defeat on government forces elsewhere in the country.

For the past several months rebel groups aligned with ISIS in Aleppo province have spent nearly as much energy battling factions serving under the umbrella of the Western-leaning Free Syrian Army (FSA) as they have fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arabic-language newspaper published out of London, the media office of ISIS issued a statement on Sept. 12 saying it had launched a military campaign against FSA battalions in Aleppo province in response to a previous attack on the ISIS headquarters there. The most recent clashes, which took place in Bab, a district 25 km from the provincial capital, were sparked by an anti-ISIS rally. Enraged, members of the fundamentalist group shot into the crowd, injuring eight, says Abu Mohammad, an engineer who was at the scene.

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Abu Mohammad, who spoke to TIME via Skype, estimates that over the past several months similar clashes have resulted in dozens of dead — and none of the victims were members of the Syrian government that the rebels are ostensibly seeking to overthrow. “People are fed up with their behavior. Anyone who disagrees with them is an infidel. Any moderate person is an infidel. Simply if you are not with them you are an infidel,” he says, asking to be identified only by his nickname, for his protection. The infidel accusation, according to ISIS’s draconian interpretation of Islamic law, can result in execution.

Abu Sohaib, an ISIS leader in the nearby town of Azaz, was not involved in the Bab conflict, but he defends the groups’ new campaign, telling TIME via Skype that ISIS is only fighting collaborators and war profiteers, not critics. He says most of the clashes started because members of the FSA were stealing money, humanitarian supplies and food aid destined for civilians. “People are fed up from the so-called FSA, because of their corruption and behavior. We launched the campaign to purify the revolution, and so far we have succeeded in eliminating most of those who profit from the revolution.”

Abdul Rahman Mattar, an Aleppo-based human-rights activist and writer, agrees that ISIS and its ideological sibling Jabhat al-Nusra, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, were initially welcomed in the area for their superior fighting skills and low tolerance for the petty corruption of FSA soldiers. But, he adds, speaking to TIME via Skype, their harsh interpretation of Islamic law is starting to grate on local Syrians who don’t share that ideology. “People don’t want to replace one dictatorship with another,” says Mattar. “One of the main problems of ISIS in Syria is that many of its fighters are outsiders, and they don’t understand Syrian society.” Still, he adds, “I cannot understand how they forgot about fighting the regime and focused instead on fighting the rebels.”

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To Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an international-affairs think tank based in Beirut, the widening schism between ISIS and other, more moderate elements of the opposition is a good thing, even if it temporarily distracts from the battle against Assad. “The rise of [Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS] groups is a far bigger threat to the region than Assad staying on for a few more years in Damascus,” he says, noting that the Assad regime — despite its oft-vocalized fears of a jihadist takeover — has notably refrained from attacking ISIS targets, the better to undermine the rest of the rebel groups. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), the Western-backed group that is attempting to organize the FSA, understands the importance of getting rid of ISIS, says Salem. “They know [the rebels] can’t defeat the regime alone, and they know that the U.S. won’t let them win if that means letting Jabhat al-Nusra win. So they have realized that strategically speaking, Nusra is a no go. So they have to divorce.”

But as any recently divorced couple knows, untangling assets can be messy. ISIS groups and FSA brigades may be at one another’s throats in Aleppo, but in Maaloula, a strategic town near Damascus, Jabhat al-Nusra worked seamlessly with FSA member brigades to achieve a decisive victory against the regime last weekend. The joint effort raises questions of just how possible it really is to cleave the pro-Western rebels away from the rest

Maaloula is the rule and Bab is the exception, according to Swedish analyst and researcher Aron Lund, who has just completed a study of Syria’s nonstate actors. It is very rare that one group pulls off an operation all by itself. Instead individual commanders from across the ideological spectrum join forces to plan the attack, each contributing its specific expertise and weapons cache. “It’s unrealistic to expect that you can tell rebels to stay away from other rebels as long as civil war is going on.” Al-Nusra, he points out, has a particularly effective battlefield weapon that few of the more moderate groups can claim: suicide bombers. The conquest of Maaloula started with a suicide attack by an al-Nusra fighter on the government checkpoint. The fight went downhill from there. “The suicide attack is a powerful weapon,” says Lund. “Many battles start with an operation to take the military base. To do that you have to break the perimeter, and you can’t do that without a suicide bomber. So that is what Nusra brings to the table.”

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The FSA’s battlefield deficiencies, so to speak, can be overcome if it gets better funding and more supplies, says Salem. But it won’t, and shouldn’t, happen overnight. What’s at issue now is not so much arming the SMC to make a decisive push against the Assad regime as turning the group into a credible military and governance entity. The broader objective should be to stabilize the rebel areas, to open schools, to have medical clinics and to bring in governance, he says. Only then should rebels start talking about defeating the regime. “If you can have a credible SMC in a few years, one that can bring governance, that has a military capacity, and that can control the jihadis, then the West might start saying, O.K., we can afford for Assad to fall.” That will have an impact on the Syrians too, he adds. “Right now they are saying, ‘If the opposition is going to be Jabhat al-Nusra, frankly we prefer Assad.’ But if the SMC can get its act together, and it can assure Syrians that it is strong and capable and that they won’t be harassed by these jihadis, then they will support it.’” For the moment, Syrians only see a choice between ISIS and Assad. But if the SMC can step up, the town of Bab might unite to fight the regime, instead of one another.

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut

55 comments
Bob56
Bob56

I don't want my tax money going to fund terrorists! We need to take back our government people! They are the scum of the Earth!

mafmaf891
mafmaf891

@kasimf mr faisal yor are great .. Please don't look too dogs like abu ali .. good morning

Ahmed_alfayez
Ahmed_alfayez

@kasimf د. فيصل وش رأيك بنصر الشيطان مختفي من يوم أعلنت امريكا الضربة ولما هدأ الوضع طلع بالتصاريح بيسوي لنا دور البطل أكبر كاذب بالتاريخ

NahrAwand
NahrAwand

"According to al-Quds al-Arabi," . . .  Well, “Alquds Al-Arabi”, true is an Arabic newspaper but pro-Iranian at least for now thus gauging the situation on the ground in Syria from their perspective, will only give a view  alarmingly askew.
True, skirmishes between different opposition groups are rife, especially,  in contiguous areas but this is not by any means a reason to start to believe that the opposition is about to forget all about Bashar and embark on a bloody self-destructive infighting. One vital reason why I think such a thing is unthinkable is because everyone in the Syrian opposition lacks faith in the west and after two years and a half of fighting, everyone is sadder but wiser; they know they had come this far with help from no one but each other therefore they should be wise enough not to throw it all away now.

ibrahim_alhamad
ibrahim_alhamad

@kasimf ولدي شك ايظاً ان هذا التنظيم لا يخص اهل السنة بصله لا من بعيد ولا من قريب

abuali201
abuali201

@kasimf انصحك ان تشاهد خطاب السيد نصرالله الآن افضل لك ياعبدالدولار القطري

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Syrian Arab News Agency SANA

A mass in Montreal for peace in Syria

Sep 16, 2013

Montreal, (SANA) – Father Paul Khayyat on Monday prayed during a mass in Saint Mark Arsanios Church in Montreal city in Canada, for Syria and its army, wishing it victory in the face of terrorism. The Church Pastor denounced during the mass the terrorist brutal attack launched by the armed terrorist groups on the archeological city of Ma'aloula, stressing that these acts do not represent the least degree of spirituality, morality or nationalistic sense. Father Khayyat pointed out that Ma'aloula city is still speaking the Aramaic language, the language of Jesus the Christ.http://imgur.com/J0s9296

After the mass, Father Khayyat took part in the march held by the Syrian and Arab communities in Canada where they carried the Syrian flag, flowers and the cross.

http://sana.sy/eng/22/2013/09/16/502878.htm

Lilia Stephens
Lilia Stephens

Americans should be prosecuted for sponsoring the rebels/terrorists.

Billie Beights
Billie Beights

I think they should have a safe place for all children could go cause no child should have to face the brutality of war that's were my prayers goes to the children who face such things it makes me very sad for them because their little and can't defend against such evil

Leah Mexted
Leah Mexted

because they are funding and arming Al Qaeda

NavpreetKaur
NavpreetKaur

i am yet to understand why the US and other western countries so desperate to overthrow Asad regime, and supporting Al-Qaeda to which they are fighting deadly war in Afganistan and they are aiming to create unrest in the whole world. how can they(US) expect from these deadly jehadists to not to attack again(like 9/11). instead they paying them taxpayers money, giving them arms etc. Why don't the US and NATO understand that under Asad , Syria is the only Secular regime in this region, and if the rebels win that is what the US and NATO are trying, then what will happen of the minorities christians , Alewites and Shias and other small groups? this is clearly a Shia-Sunni regional hegemony war, created by Autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the so called Democracy Turkey, and now they are pulling US , NATO and the whole world in... Arab countries have their other own interests in waging a war in this region, like the war will increase the prices of oil, which will ultimately benefit them, Sunnization of Middle East etc...

Kabwe Pande
Kabwe Pande

The many that call for Assad to be prosecuted, has it ever struck your mind that you would probably have reacted worse if you were in his shoes. Look at it this way, you can not surely sit and watch your neighbor come into your house, starts to undermine your authority through your children, without giving them a back lash would you? Those rebels are like undisciplined impostors of children who need a good lashing. I'd kill them twice if I was in his shoes, gas them up and shoot them too just to make sure they leave the face of the earth.

Torian Kennedy
Torian Kennedy

Why the hell doesn't the United States go after Al- Qaeda for allegedly murdering 3,000 of its citizens?? Instead the radically militant group is allowed the freedom to topple any Islamic state of its choice. Why does America oppose instead of support the Syrian govt. since its in the interest of Al- Qaeda rebels to destroy such a govt.? Maybe it's because AL- Qaeda is US controlled serving US interest.. Al-Qaeda justified the invasion of the Arabian world and is a strategic Geo-political tool for the US. SO... Who funded them into existence?? The US of course, it's even on record in the indirect form of the Mujahideen, which the US tracked on a database they name Al- Qaeda, giving birth to the boogeyman of 21st century American society. The politics surrounding the Middle East is all about justifying the gradual occupation of Arabia, state by state. Saudi Arabia (covertly occupied) Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and of course Syria next.

Mohamedelhedi Ben Abdessattar
Mohamedelhedi Ben Abdessattar

Palestine Will stand always free ....Sharon is great murder ever Time ...i don't Forget sabra et chatila ........Never ..Never ...Never .....long Life for all Black américan ...i love it ....

T John Kitchen
T John Kitchen

I think usa mite need to mine there own bussiness

Paul Coggins
Paul Coggins

you knew this was going to happen. Have at it

Sonja AT
Sonja AT

the rebes should be prosecuted for war crimes.

Scott Berrian
Scott Berrian

I'm sure they'll do it all the faster too with arms financed by U.S. tax dollars.

JD Daniel
JD Daniel

All I know is Syrians are killing Syrians so we might have to kill some Syrians to keep Syrians from being killed.

Azul Cruz
Azul Cruz

they all need th eat S#@T and die!

Selina Chan
Selina Chan

Assad should be prosecuted for war crimes regardless if revolution is successful or not.

HowardHanek
HowardHanek

Memo to the moderate Rebels. The best time to hit Al Qaeda is when their foreheads are on the their prayer rugs......

jrobertson101
jrobertson101

What the writer failed to report is that the "rebels", once they took over the predominantly Christian town of Maloulla, where the inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, began to attack and kill Christians and force conversions to Islam, as well as attack churches and monasteries.  Assad's forces attempted to push back the "rebels" and rescue the town from its Islamist occupiers.  See these reports: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10309239/Maaloulas-cathedral-and-churches-empty-of-Christians-as-Syrias-latest-front-line-fight-takes-its-toll.html    http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-battle-of-maaloula-in-the-land-of-jesus-us-sponsored-rebels-destroy-syria-christian-heritage/5349635  http://www.infowars.com/black-jihadist-flag-flies-over-christian-town-of-maaloula/


MatthewKilburn
MatthewKilburn

Any group, ideology, religion, etc. is capable of excess. That goes for anything from the radical Islamists to the secular forces in the United States who wage virtual warfare against traditional, christian-based social values. Any outcome in Syria is going to have an Islamic flavor to it, because the vast majority of the population is Islamic.

Its wrong to promote the discord among the rebels...let them get rid of Assad first, THEN we can focus on what comes next. Otherwise, they may never get rid of him.

Rain_Child1
Rain_Child1

@syriamonitor black hearts have no loyalty or honor! Bound to happen. Let the rabid fools feed off each other.

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

The reality is that, larger groupings fighting  for a cause, inevitably change after the common goal is achieved. Muslims wanted to separate from India and Pakistan was created. Now,the Shias and Sunnis are at each other's throat! The rebel army came together to oust Assad, but they are at each other's throat, due to policy differences. Unless people tolerate pluralism and make common ideologies to be the basis, infighting cannot be avoided. As human beings, we all belong to groups,sub-groups and variations of these. Therefore. differences will be the focus, rather than things in common!

gabrielestab
gabrielestab

@TIME @TIMEWorld American media analysis on Middle East plunging deep towards the unknown and beyond. Can't be taken seriously.

jiaberg
jiaberg

@TIME @TIMEWorld Sums up west's attitude that it's ok to fund anyone including otherwise criminals as long as they have same western goals.

ag20390
ag20390

@Sibir_Russia


God bless Father Paul Khayyat.


And all the best to Mr Putin and the American people for forcing Obama to abandon his plans for bombing Syria.

leaveamarc
leaveamarc

@capriconza3 not sure how you concluded this but thanks for your concern. i don't want muslims to die...very naive and stupid statement.